Tagged: acoustic

Drawn Together

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Ashley Paul has relaunched her tiny hand-made label Wagtail Records and in August this year she had a table at the Peckham Independent Label Fair exhibiting with other boutique micro-labels who are likewise releasing exciting stuff in unusual packages. In February this year she sent us a copy of release #4, a cassette by Ben Pritchard called A Drawn Out Line (WAGTAIL 004). Very much a personal artistic statement, this record is just steeped in its own modesty…small edition, delicate packaging, and with a recording quality that, while clear and uncluttered, doesn’t waste money on unnecessary production values. As for Pritchard himself, he plays a mean abstract acoustic guitar, but does so in a manner that suggests he doesn’t expect anyone to be actually listening. I’d love to see his hands at work…I’m sure the sight would give Andy Summers a fit of apoplexy. And just wait till you hear his songs, offered up with a diffident and tentative singing voice lost swimming around the rocks of his own sad and mysterious symbols. We might almost call him the lost connection between Derek Bailey and Leonard Cohen. If it sounds so far like I’m describing the very embodiment of an introverted bedroom guitarist, then frankly that’s all to the good. I think the world needs more introverts. We’ve already got far too many extroverts, especially in music, many of them pushing their lack of talent and ability in your face while they try to get by on sheer bravado.

Getting back to Ben Pritchard, it seems his acoustic guitar is “prepared” in some way, and it could be he’s applied some interesting muffling devices to the strings, but he gets some fascinating percussive effects in between his insistent strumming method and his wayward sliding solos. Fans of Robert Johnson or any blues guitarist who projects an instant impression of playing two guitars at once 1 may want to investigate using their blue ears, although the abstraction and strange language inherent in Pritchard’s unusual playing may not appeal immediately. Personally I think it’s wonderful, fragile and ethereal, and at times veers close to the first faltering indications of someone living in a private world, and trying to describe what it’s like. This kind of creative solipsism has, I suggest, been the ideal of any post-Jandek musician who fancies himself an “outsider” just because he or she experiences occasional feelings of disaffection when they’re standing in the bus queue, but I’m prepared to believe Pritchard is the real deal, a convincing creator who keeps pushing away at his themes even if it’s not entirely clear to him where they are leading, or what they mean. Rugged and raw art-creation at its most uncooked. I can see why Ashley Paul likes his work, and she contributes clarinet to one of the songs too. Lovely limited item with hand-made artworks, recommended. From 26 February 2015.

  1. I have in mind the famous Keith Richards anecdote here.

Ragged Lines

Source: label website
Source: label website

Quite enjoying moments of the third LabField album called Bucket Of Songs (HUBRO MUSIC HUBROCD2543). It’s much less melodic than the music that normally reaches us from these Norwegian Hubro releases, and it doesn’t instantly feel like the band are bidding to get their work used as the soundtrack for an art movie or aiming to update Country & Western steel-guitar instrumentals for the Latte & Cappucino set. Instead the trio of David Stackenäs, Ingar Zach and Giuseppe Ielasi are using their improvising skills to create very dense and ambiguous things which are half-tune, half-texture, with a coating of a third element that’s a tad mysterious and translucent. Perhaps it’s mica. Or ground rock salt. At their best, LabField create the kind of unusual guitar music which I’d always hoped to get from Jim O’Rourke projects starting with Mimir onwards (it hasn’t happened for me yet). The band used to be just the duo of guitarist Stackenäs and percussionist Zach, but now famed producer and musician Ielasi, who has guested on previous releases, is now a permanent member, bringing a second guitar and also a shiny silver box from which emerge unusual and restrained electronic sounds. Mariam Wallentin adds vocals to a few tracks, thankfully not that many, as her fey astringent vocals do nothing at all for me; they carry an aura of phoney drama and weepy emotiveness. Mostly a reflective and melancholic album, although some cuts display a more agitated frame of mind. From 20 February 2015.

Xe + Ar

Source: label website
Source: label website

Unusual and very good album called Xenon & Argon (GAFFER RECORDS GR053) of acoustic chamber music by a quartet called The Pitch, four Berlin-based fellows who play clarinet, organ, bass and vibraphone. They’ve been doing it since 2009 and have evolved a particular way of working and creating music which is largely beyond me as I don’t have the musicology skills to grasp it, but apparently it lies somewhere between improvisation and composed music, and involves a specific approach to harmonic construction which they call “pitch-set constellations”. That reference point established, they either deploy melodic patterns of notes, or let the pieces unfold in slow motion. I can’t be the first listener to have noticed an uncanny resemblance here to the work of Morton Feldman, although there’s considerably more musical activity going on (they are not exactly minimalists) and The Pitch’s general demeanour when performing is less strict, less tightly disciplined than good old “Morty”. Whatever they are doing, it comes together very nicely, and creates a very pleasant “lucid dreaming” sensation that is helpful and beneficial to the mind and body. “Ultra-talented and forward-thinking” is how their label describes the quartet and their micro-tonal music. From 12 January 2015.

Hail Hydra

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Last noted Dimitris Papadatos in a March 2015 post where he was appearing as one half of Virilio. Now he’s here again as The Hydra, a solo venture which he juggles alongside his other solo alias KU. The cassette On Troubleshooting (RECORD LABEL RECORD LABEL RLRLC002) has one side called ‘Give Me Another Universe’, and it’s a fairly bonkers onslaught that makes extensive use of repeat / loop actions, either through excessive digital delay pedalling, or switching the synth auto-trigger on. Or both. We read that this one was constructed from sound samples (including an extensive record collection, apparently), but the modular synth still continues to dominate the sonic soup kitchen like a cruel master chef with a grating voice. The completely abstract and inhuman outpourings pass on a strange and unreal experience, much like being covered with a sort of bland, flavourless, brown ice cream that’s been left out of the freezer too long. So far this Hydra is living up to its name as a beast of many heads…

The flip called ‘The Metaphysical Animal’ is no less portentous, even if the ice cream here was originally another flavour. It’s another slow-moving drone monster of treated modular synth sounds, comprised of many layers which swim against each other like langourous sea beasts in a sluggish ocean. Rather cold and inhuman, but the swelling rhythms do exert a certain physical pull. He was apparently trying to build “a frozen crust, still and unmoved, while below it a rapid movement takes place.” Out of context, that could be read as an editorial from the pages of National Geographic magazine when they’re covering dormant volcanoes in Fiji. Dimitris is keen (in the press notes) at any rate) to point out the mechanics of the production of his music, a process which involves use of field recordings and plunderphonics as well as the moaning synths.

Despite all the very specific and named sources used for creating this music (including jazz, a muezzin recording, a sound effects record), On Troubleshooting remains resolutely abstract and featureless, largely due to the creator’s tendency to processing, thus blurring all separate identities into a morass of drone. At least when Philip Jeck played old records, he allowed some recognisable elements to appear, acting as signposts for the listener. Coversely, The Hydra plunges the listener instantly into an unknown world, and keeps us there. From 02 December 2014.

subrout

From same label, the tape Dual Processing (RECORD LABEL RECORD LABEL RLRLC001) features the reductionist tuba player Robin Hayward (also in Phosphor) and percussionist Morten J. Olsen from Stavanger, performing here as Subroutine. They are quite pleased with the way that all their sounds are acoustic in origin, yet the results are oddly reminiscent of sound produced by electronic or digital means. Admittedly, the recordings are layered and mixed, but the process that’s relevant is the real-time acoustical interaction that each instrument (microtonal tube and bass drum) is having on the other. Real-time non-digital remixing of some sort. I dig this, but they do it at such a tedious pace that the work feels precious, and ultimately rather boring in its non-eventfulness.

Over the Garden Wall

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Last noted Norwegian group Spunk with their astonishing 6-CD box set Das Wohltemperierte Spunk. Here they are again on Adventura Botanica (RUNE GRAMMOFON RCD 2163), an unusual piece which was originally part of a dance performance thing featuring the choreography of Odd Johan Fritzøe. While he cavorted around dressed in one of the flower costumes rescued from Peter Gabriel’s collection (originally used on ‘Willow Farm’ when Genesis did Supper’s Ready live on stage in the 1970s), a large sculpture dominated the performance arena, around which sat various smaller objects got up to look like star orchids, but which were in fact sonic generators of some sort. Some garden. Taking cues from these aural flowers, and responding to the actions of Fritzøe himself, Spunk created the accompanying music on which the present album (a studio version, not a live recording) is based. The team of Maja Ratkje, Hild Sofie Tafjord, Lene Grenager and Kristin Andersen once again create stunningly original and strange, beautiful music, all of them working outside of the pigeon-holes of improvisation and composition and finding their own unique niche. It’s all done with acoustic instruments and the human voice, but also (I would assume) a lot of intuition, rapport, collaboration, respect, and even friendship. Did I mention Adventura Botanica is a concept album about the secret life of Charles Darwin? I couldn’t believe the things he got up to in the hold of The Beagle…and you won’t either, until you hear this album. From 21 October 2014.

Mastawesha (Ethiopiques 29): showcase of a great singer with unfulfilled potential

Kassa Tessema

Kassa Tessema, Ethiopiques 29: Mastawesha, Buda Musique, CD 860257 (2014)

I havn’t heard very many of the discs in Buda Musique’s Ethiopiques series though I’m aware that the bulk of the music released in that series has tended to focus on popular jazz, soul, groove and other Western-derived genres that took root and flourished in Ethiopia over the past 60-plus years with an emphasis on the music from the 1950s to 1975. Occasionally the series will venture into lesser known home-grown genres and folk traditions in Ethiopia and Volume 29, focusing on singer Kassa Tessema (1927 – 1973), is one such outlier. This collection gathers up two albums’ worth of material Tessema recorded and released on vinyl: the first eight songs come off an album released in 1972 and the remaining five from an album made posthumously from tapes recorded privately and released in 1976. According to the sleeve notes that accompany this CD, these albums are the only recordings of Tessema’s ever to have been released on vinyl.

On all 13 songs that Tessema sings, he accompanies himself on the krar, a six-stringed triangular lyre, picking the strings note by note instead of strumming the instrument with a pick or plectrum to play chords. This technique of playing the krar, said in the CD sleeve notes to be dying out in Ethiopia, lends all the songs a mournful, introspective air as well as showcasing Tessema’s remarkable voice. The melancholy mood suits the subject matter of the songs, several of them being about love lost, separation from one’s love or the pain of being alone. Quite a few songs like “Fanno” and “Gelel” have a martial theme and sometimes listeners may wonder whether, when Tessema is singing about love and separation, he is referring to a real woman, a romanticised ideal of womanhood or even Ethiopia idealised as a woman. That Tessema comes across as loyal and patriotic almost to a fault is not surprising given his background: entering the Imperial Bodyguard of Emperor Haile Selassie at the age of 17 years, he remained there for the rest of his life and saw action in the Korean War in two tours of duty from June 1951 to April 1952 and from April 1953 to April 1954. No other musicians or instruments feature on the album: all you hear is Tessema and his krar.

If the songs from the 1972 album are minimal and sometimes quite strange to the Western ear, the later songs are different again: sung and performed in different keys, the tracks can have the feel of blues music. The emotion in Tessema’s singing can be quite intense and almost overwhelming. Although he still plays his krar by fingering, the notes almost run into one another, tremolo style. As the 1976 songs were recorded in a private setting, the quality of the recordings is not the best and the krar can sound a bit blunted. Even so, with what exists, the sound is rich and suggests that had Tessema not died prematurely, his style could have continued to develop into a powerful and highly evocative musical entity capable of an amazing range of emotional expression.

While there are no sing-along pieces here, Tessema more than amply compensates with his playing and his deeply sonorous voice that conveys a deep feeling and which commands respect no matter what he happens to be singing about. The little that survives of his work is to be treasured indeed.

Aq’Ab’Al: black metal psychedelia exploring the journey through darkness to light

Volahn Aq'Ab'Al

Volahn, Aq’Ab’Al, Iron Bonehead Productions, CD (2015)

One of the hardest-working musicians in black metal has to be one Edward Ramirez, the chief mover (I’ll say!) and shaker of that group of southern Californian bands known as the Black Twilight Circle whose inspiration is pride in their Mexican-American heritage – in particular the mythology and belief systems of the Aztecs and Maya. Ramirez has a hand in several BTC bands like Acualli, Arizmenda, Blue Hummingbird on the Left, Kuxan Suum and Muknal. With such a wide-ranging involvement on his part, and usually playing on all instruments, it goes without saying the bands are much the same in style and sound, and the differences among them are in their lyrical subject matter. Volahn’s particular interest is in celebrating the gods and worldview of the Maya (Ramirez has part-Mayan ancestry), and the place and journey of human souls towards enlightenment within this ideology. “Aq’Ab’Al” itself explores the dark passages that the soul needs to traverse to achieve transformation and enlightenment.

The music is usually fast and furious to the point of bloodthirsty derangement and even beyond, but there is also deeply felt emotion: in many songs, melancholy, longing and a sadness too intense and deep for words to describe are present. A song can begin strongly and aggressively with screeching, howling vocal – Ramirez’s motto must be “why sing when you can scream?” – and continue this way for several minutes; but as the music progresses, the mood changes and a more reflective, sadder state follows. Result: tracks can come in with a roar and go out quietly. Volahn’s style is raw, unadorned black metal, heavy on frantic vibrato riffing, with guitars, percussion and vocals out of whack with one another, and everything on fire. Ramirez’s singing usually is cloaked in thin dark cold echo and as a result there is a slight cavernous and dark edge to the songs.

One of the more enigmatic pieces on the album is “Bonampak” which for the most part is the usual scorched-earth blast of guitar rage and vocal screecherama but then ends unexpectedly with a beautiful melody of acoustic guitar and flute that captures the feeling of closeness to and wonder at nature in its tropical glory. “Quetzalcoatl” which follows is a bit more distinctive than the others with brief shrill lead guitar motifs and a bluesy feel near the end. Sometimes when I listen to the album, I have the feeling that Ramirez played more or less continuously and then cut the music into six parts as songs seem to take up music, ideas and moods from preceding tracks.

Listening to such relentless music over nearly a whole hour can be very wearying; the highlights start coming about halfway through the recording with unexpected quiet flourishes of acoustic music that have a flowing Latino quality and possibly some flamenco guitar influence, after the otherwise chaotic excess of runaway guitar, screaming voice and drum battery. The intense overwrought delivery might not suit everyone and can even be a turn-off, and maybe Ramirez could have tried to sort the stream-of-consciousness music into more definite songs. For sheer power and manic fervour though this album is hard to beat.

Contact: Volahn (Facebook), Crepusculo Negro

Spiritual Rash

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After eight years since I first heard her two Dekorder LPs, I find I’m still struggling to understand or make much sense of the work of Kuupuu, the very talented Jonna Karanka, member of Avarus and one of the more incomprehensible of the fey Finnish acoustic brigade. Sisar (EM RECORDS EM1112LP), her 2013 release for Em Records, has some moments at the start when it seems possible to penetrate the gauzy veneer of rainbow lights and misty veils, but I lose the thread in short order. In these recordings from 2009-2011, she continues to use multiple acoustic instruments to create amazingly exotic sounds, and tape loops to underpin the music with clunky, deliberately-irregular rhythms. It’s divine, but what does it mean? The language barrier may be one problem, although she isn’t intent on conveying “meaning” through song, by which I mean she is not setting out to be a songwriter as far as I can see, not even when her breathy vocals are used to add one more layer on top of what is already a very cluttered surface. The translations of the titles into English suggest poetic themes such as the moon, the passing of time, plant life, friendships, and spiritual leanings; plus the brilliantly hermetic title ‘Viisikko Kuusikossa’ which translates as “The Famous Fifty-Six”. The humming bird collage cover is also nice.

The Memory Men

EP_MAR15521

The Static Memories are Gus Garside and Dan Powell, names probably familiar to anyone living in Brighton UK where it’s fair to say there is a “thriving” culture of live gigs and events such that all eager fans of improvised music, noise, jazz and all sorts of uncategorisable performed endeavours will find their needs well catered-for. Garside and Powell also have connections to Nil, OMSK, The Spirit of Gravity and arc, and while they’ve been playing as a team for eight years now, it turns out that this – The Bloudy Vision of John Farley (THE SLIGHTLY OFF KILTER LABEL sok049) – is their first studio album. They made it using the recording engineer skills of Robert Plater, and it’s realised using double bass, guitar, percussion, but also unspecified “electronic” interventions, an addition that gets my hedgehog prickles twitching in anticipation. Sure enough, the surface sound of this splendid duo delivers a life-enriching dose of acoustic instrument sounds blending harmoniously with weird and illogical electric kaboozles, a blend which I’ve always found most pleasing. I’d go further and suggest the music of The Static Memories is more enjoyable than a good deal of the rather poised and staid music that has, within living memory, been published under the banner of “electro-acoustic improvisation”, and although it would be possible to flatten the Brighton pair into that particular pigeonhole, they escape from it as easily as a greased-up lizard scurrying out of a wooden shoebox.

EP_MAR15522

The album – titled in such a way that the unwary might at first glance mistake it for a John Fahey pastiche, is subtitled “restructured improvisations”, which suggests there was a strategy of re-editing or overdubbing at some stage, but it’s hard to discern where the editing knife may have fallen, since the music sounds so assured, whole, complete, so right-first-time. To add further resonance, I’ll single out a remark from Paul Khimasia Morgan the label owner, who describes the music as “improvisation…brutally shorn”, a phrase which invokes the shears of a metaphysical barber, and vividly captures the raw and naked minimalism of The Static Memories; it is highly honest music to me, neither musician nor instrument is pretending to be that which it is not, and the electronic components are fully integrated into the body of the work. I’ll also reiterate a phrase from Gavin Burrows, who has seen them live, and calls their performance “a super-magnet in a room of steel screws”; this compressed image summarises the mesmerising qualities of the duo, who when they get into the “zone” are capable of exerting this powerful and fascinating force on the listener, an energy that operates on the level of natural biological rhythms like breathing and pulsebeats, regardless of how alien and atonal the surface sound may be. Thus The Static Memories build on lessons learned from Pauline Oliveros and her deep breathing methodology, and incorporate them into a rugged, home-grown and very accomplished method all of their own. Superb record! Arrived 25 June 2014.

The Summoner: portrayal of grief and loss not as affecting as it could be

miacd030

Kreng, The Summoner, Miasmah Recordings, MIACD039 (2015)

Its tracks tracing the six stages of grief from denial to acceptance – though there may be dispute among psychologists as to whether grief can be neatly packaged and presented in a narrow linear structure – this recording is a sombre shadowy journey into an underworld where the realm of the living and the realm of the dead contact and merge imperceptibly. The music ranges from cold soughing ambience, made up of spirits in perpetual itinerant restlessness, to sudden twisted chamber music / orchestral clutter or scramble, to repetitive death doom metal drone. Although the tracks suggest a definite linear narrative that suspiciously mirrors other distinctively Western cultural narratives – one thinks of the product life-cycle that marketers refer to, which I was taught at university – the actual music itself often ducks and weaves, quiet one moment, loud and forceful the next and then suddenly quiet and passive again, as if protesting or mocking the strictures
placed upon it.

The album is not easy to follow as a result of its unexpected twists and turns – not that Kreng main-man Pepijn Caudron has ever set out to make very straightforward music since he started the Kreng project – and listeners might find themselves wishing that he be more consistent and get to the point of whatever it is he’s trying to say. This perhaps is the unfortunate effect of imposing a cultural construct on the music and the phenomenon it’s referring to. Perhaps it’s not until a person has really experienced a profound personal loss or some of the emotions represented on this album that s/he might be able to approach it on its terms. Although having gone through depression myself, and having heard other music made by people who also suffered from depression and who drew on their experience, I did find the track “Depression” not quite as deep or affecting as it could be: there was no sense of deep emptiness, the impression of having a hole punched in the
centre of one’s being or feeling sudden panic that I’ve detected in other people’s recordings and which I can vouch does happen.

Track 5, intended to be the album’s crowning glory and summation, features both orchestral and death metal music, and I have to say I found this piece not very impressive: the dark orchestral music sounds like generic horror-movie soundtrack fluff and there’s no sense of terror or mystery that something profound might be happening. The slow church-organ transition from foreboding orchestral doom to metal doom is beguiling enough; if only it didn’t get shunted aside by sledgehammer-blunt death doom guitar bludgeon, courtesy of guest band Amenra. Again, this part of the track is a disappointment: we get nothing new here that a thousand million other doomy death metal acts haven’t already done, over and over.

After all is said and done, listeners might find themselves back at square one after a trip that didn’t take them anywhere much. The first half of the album was far better in creating atmosphere and a strong sense of dread but it was let down by some very mediocre music in the second half. This isn’t a work I’d recommend for people who are mourning the loss of a much-loved relative or friend unless as part of a general suite of recordings of varied music on loss and grief generally.

Contact: Miasmah Recordings